One of my favourite wines in hot weather is sherry. I am not talking about the sweet, sticky stuff that may arrive in a bottle labelled cream or medium. The sherry I love has the same effect as an ice-cold shower, a waft of sea-breeze or the sensation you get when you dive into an open-air swimming pool on a quiet Sunday morning.
It is refreshing, lively, palate-cleansing and accompanies so many foods that it can take you right through from early evening until bedtime.
In short, this is the dry end of the sherry spectrum – manzanilla and fino.
The reason why manzanilla and fino are so good in summer is that they both have a dry, tangy taste, but they also have weight and persistence on the palate. Serve chilled, they are summer’s best drinking secret.
If you last bought a bottle of sherry when great aunt Edna came to stay, you have probably forgotten all you ever knew about sherry, so here is a bit of background on these wines.
All sherry comes from Spain. You may think that Cyprus, South Africa and other places also churn out sherry, but that was before the name became protected – like Wensleydale. Sherry comes from the area around Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. This town gave its name to the product – so ‘Hereth’, as it is pronounced, became sherry in English.
All styles of sherry start off the same way. The vineyards around Jerez are rich in chalk – some are so chalky they gleam white in the sunshine and you can pick up pieces of soil and write your name on the road. The real advantage of this soil is that it can hold a huge amount of rainfall within its structure, yet bake hard on the top layer, which means that the vine’s roots can find moisture all summer long even though temperatures are high and summer rainfall is non-existent.
The main grape variety is Palomino which produces huge bunches of flavourless grapes that are fermented into equally dull and flavourless wine – but the clever bit is yet to come.
Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that pure wine alcohol is added to it after fermentation to bring the level up to around 15 per cent, and then it is aged in barrels in tall, airy warehouses. The barrels are not quite full, and while that would be a disaster for most wines, in the yeast-filled air of Jerez, something strange happens.
A creamy white film grows on the surface of the wine, rather like the mould on a Camembert. It spreads out completely over the surface, creating an impermeable blanket which shuts out oxygen and allows further flavour changes to take place.
Trapped below the blanket, known as ‘flor’, all traces of residual sweetness disappear and a tangy dry character develops. The wine remains in cask for three years, occasionally blended with other wines, to allow it to ‘refresh’, but it is always tightly covered by flor. Tasted regularly, the decision on when it is ready to be bottled as a ‘fino’ remains with the winemaker.
The process for making manzanilla is exactly the same, but instead of being matured in the lofty warehouses of Jerez, it is transported to the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. There, the cool sea breezes exert an influence on the growth of the flor which gives the wine a strangely salty taste. There are some who believe that the saltiness comes from the sea air – which it may do, but it is more likely that the flor works in a different way at a lower temperature, giving that saltiness.
But enough of how this delicious wine is made, how should you drink it? For a start, throw away any silly little sherry glasses. If they are the sort that have a waist and tend to be filled to the brim, they should go straight to the glass recycling centre.
Sherry should be drunk from a small tulip-shaped glass, half-filled, so you can swirl it around and capture those aromas.
Fino and manzanilla should be chilled, and the best way to do this is by keeping the bottle in the fridge, to be ready whenever you want a glass.
But the real key to enjoying these light, dry sherries is to drink them quickly once the bottle is open. They say that a true sherry-lover can tell the difference between a freshly-opened bottle and one opened the previous day. I don’t think that is too critical, but I prefer to finish a bottle of fino or manzanilla within a week or a fortnight at most.
I cannot drink manzanilla without something to nibble. Salted nuts, particularly almonds, add an authentic flavour of Jerez, then move on to slices of Serrano ham, a few olives and maybe a freshly-peeled prawn or two. Bite-sized pieces of chorizo sausage, anchovies, manchego cheese with piquant peppers and small crispy fried salt-cod fishcakes are other good accompaniments.
In my opinion, La Gitana, from Hidalgo, is one of the best manzanilla wines readily available on the shelves (around £8.99, Majestic and Waitrose). It is light, crisp and so tangy that it sweeps across the tastebuds like fine sandpaper, polishing each one and preparing them for food. At just 15 per cent alcohol, this is no stronger than an Aussie Shiraz, so a small glass doesn’t add a lot to your daily unit count.
Tio Pepe is the big brand and is one of the best finos around, with a touch more weight than manzanilla, although not quite as tangy and can hold its own against bigger-flavoured tapas. Available from Waitrose, Majestic, Sainsbury and most major retailers, it usually nestles just under the £10 mark.
Small bottles are a good idea if you tend to find that half-empty bottles never get finished.